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OUR VIEW: Lessons for Sarasota County

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  • | 4:00 a.m. April 14, 2011
  • Sarasota
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There is something dramatically different about the development and dynamics of Lakewood Ranch compared to the rest of the region.

It kept going, albeit at a slower pace, during the recession and has now eaten through most of its inventory to the point that houses are going up everywhere.

In fact, in the next year, about $100 million worth of construction will come out of the ground or be finished in the corridor along Lakewood Ranch Boulevard between State Roads 70 and 64. This is solid stuff, not
projects in the discussion stage. Contract-signed, dirt-moving reality.

It is a sharp contrast from most of the rest of Manatee County and Sarasota County. And there are lessons in it for leaders willing to stand up to the anti-growth forces.

First, let’s look at some numbers. Office vacancy rates are about 12.7% in Lakewood Ranch, lower even than downtown Sarasota, and almost half of the rest of the region.

At its lowest point, there were 850 homes on the market in some fashion in Lakewood Ranch. That number is about 160 now, according to Rex Jensen, president and CEO of Schroder-Manatee Ranch, developer of Lakewood Ranch.

“People have been moving in in bad times,” Jensen said. There has been a net in-migration of 200 to 300 annually during the worst recession years, and those numbers are picking up.

Along the Lakewood Ranch corridor north of State Road 70, there is the next wave of development, including office, retail, educational, housing and apartments.

Why is Lakewood Ranch so successful?

One big reason is that it is owned and developed by one landowner. It is big. Really big. And that has allowed it to develop the way it sees best to meet market needs.

For instance, when everyone was building condos and then offices, Lakewood Ranch throttled back for the right mix. That kept the overbuilding frenzy down, which happens when development is done by dozens and dozens of small developers on little plots. Small developers understandably tend to build what is hot at the moment, meaning that bubbles are almost inevitable. Think condo-craze.

Until just recently, Lakewood Ranch had only one apartment complex. Now it is building its second as the long-term market for that looks sustainable, Jensen said.

But some Manatee County commissioners and Sarasota County commissioners do not like big. They prefer zoning measures and central planning, actively trying to stop the kind of massive private development that has produced Lakewood Ranch. They would rather it was done in small increments, which does not give the developer enough flexibility to mix long term.

In Sarasota County’s case, it is even worse. Many of the major landowners who could have developed beautiful Lakewood Ranch-style communities were taken off the table and are preserved in some fashion by the county’s lands-acquisition program. Thousands of acres are simple easements, meaning the county paid the landowners never to do anything on the land other than run cattle or citrus.

Manatee is also looking to buy more land but has fewer resources. But it is reaping the benefits of approving SMR’s ambitious plans to create Lakewood Ranch 20 years ago.

There is a balance between development and preservation, but Sarasota County has a third of its land now in preservation.

Again, much of it is not like Myakka State Park, but cows and open lands. And the aggressive buying pushed by the powerful environmental lobby has cost more than taking many thousand of acres off the tax roll forever. It has cost the opportunity for long-term planned communities.

There is one more option for the county: The 2050 plan for east of Interstate 75.

So far, the Sarasota County Commission seems to be putting up barriers to making it workable for Lakewood Ranch in the north county. And if 2050 does not work, the county will have to deal with the little mish-mashes of development and exacerbated bubbles.



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